When Joe Carter, WCU’s longtime chief financial officer, announced his retirement in 2000, Chancellor John Bardo had a clear understanding of what he wanted in the university’s next vice chancellor for administration and finance. “I was absolutely committed to doing a national search, and I was 99 percent sure we would never hire anyone from inside Western Carolina to be the next finance officer, because we needed to really think differently about how we did finance,” Bardo said recently.
After a national search, the last man standing was George W. “Chuck” Wooten ’73, not only an alumnus but a WCU employee who for two decades had steadily worked his way up on the business side, and who, in Bardo’s words, “blew everybody else in the pool away.” Wooten, associate vice chancellor at the time, remembers thinking, “Well, I’ve already got 20 years of experience. Why not give me the chance to move up?” But Wooten, whose “positive mental attitude” credo – PMA for short – is well-known among employees, characteristically found a way to appreciate the employment exercise: “In hindsight, it was confirmation that my experience was as good as what the other people were bringing to the table. It validated my being the person who was selected.”
Wooten retired Jan. 1 after a decade of unparalleled growth at WCU, accompanied by a rise in applications, enrollment and quality of education. During Wooten’s time as vice chancellor, fueled by millions in state bond money and locally approved debt, WCU doubled the size of its campus with the purchase of 344 acres as part of the Millennial Initiative; built the Fine and Performing Arts Center, Campus Recreation Center, Courtyard Dining Hall and five residence halls; and made improvements to every athletic facility on campus. So rapid was the development that Bardo, speaking at an October ceremony to honor Wooten with the university’s Distinguished Service Award, recalled returning from a two-week vacation to find that “Chuck had moved a road.”
Helping develop WCU’s master plan is a career highlight for Wooten, but he calls the “relationships and friendships” the best part of his job. His colleagues return the love. Through the most difficult times – budget cuts, tight deadlines, staff turnover, implementing new systems – Wooten always maintained the highest standards, a calm demeanor, and his beloved PMA, said Jeanine Newman, WCU’s former associate vice chancellor for financial services. “We used to laugh about it, but he really lived that. He modeled it, and that’s contagious,” said Newman, recently named vice chancellor of finance at Sowela Technical Community College in Lake Charles, La. She claims Wooten as a mentor, and they both claim Carter, with whom Wooten worked for 20 years. Succeeding Wooten on an interim basis is internal auditor Robert Edwards ’77.
Wooten arrived at WCU as a student after a neighbor suggested he consider attending. He met his wife at WCU, Kathy Goforth Wooten ’72, a cheerleader, whose two sisters, Nancy Goforth Carson ’74 and Cheryl Goforth White ’86, and their husbands, Joe Carson and Mike White ’84, also attended.
Wooten returned to WCU as an employee after working as an accountant in the N.C. Department of State Treasurer and then, from 1975-80, as finance officer and then as manager of Iredell County, a demanding position that required late nights and early mornings. “There just never was enough time for anything except work,” said Wooten, whose daughter was born in 1978. (In the midst of work and family, Wooten completed a master’s degree in public administration at Appalachian State University in 1979.) An ad in the Charlotte Observer for controller at WCU caught Wooten’s eye. “The idea of returning to Cullowhee was attractive to both Kathy and me,” he said.
Wooten’s commitment to WCU is matched by his commitment to community. He is active with Cullowhee United Methodist Church and the Cullowhee Parks and Community Association and serves on the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority, the board of Givens Estate in Asheville and the advisory board for the Sylva State Employees Credit Union. Upon leaving WCU, Wooten agreed to a six-month interim position as Jackson County manager, and he looks forward to similar assignments ahead. “I don’t plan on going home and propping my feet up. I’m going to do something, but it’s going to be the things I want to do,” he said. The interim position is a good fit for her husband, said Kathy Wooten, who retired as a kindergarten teacher at Fairview Elementary School in Sylva. “He really had many reservations about retiring, and it took him a long time to decide on it. With so much good knowledge that he has, he would want to share it,” she said.
Part of what prompted Wooten’s retirement from WCU is what prompted him to seek the job in the first place: his family. Daughter Sally Wooten and her husband, Kevin Queen ’98 MSA ’09, are parents to twin 3-year-old daughters, Ella and Mattie. “Chuck’s life totally changed when he became a grandfather as far as what I saw him get joy from,” Kathy Wooten said. “I fell in love with him all over again, seeing him embrace those two little girls. It’s really been special to watch.” Spending time with his granddaughters, who live in Burke County, before they enter school is a priority for Wooten, as is influencing their decisions related to higher education. “We’re going to work really hard on Ella and Mattie to see if they can be future Catamounts,” he said.